Indefinite Suspension of VA Firefighter for Stalking Is Upheld

An arbitrator, and now the appeals court, has upheld the indefinite suspension of a VA employee in connection with several incidents of his “stalking” of female coworkers.

According to the appeals court’s decision in Lockwood v. Department of Veterans Affairs (CAFC No. 2017-1489, 2/21/18 (nonprecedential)), Lockwood was a firefighter with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) at Alexandria, Louisiana. The agency received complaints that he was following female employees at the facility. At least five people gave statements to investigators, including that Lockwood had entered an employee’s vehicle without her consent, had unwanted physical contact, had followed employees at and from the hospital to their residences, and followed others around the nearby town. Eventually Lockwood was arrested and charged with four counts of stalking by the local District Attorney. At that time VA did nothing and apparently Lockwood stayed on the rolls. (Opinion p. 3)

About a year later there were new allegations and VA decided it was time to act. Lockwood was suspended indefinitely until the pending criminal charges against him were completed. The basis for the suspension was the four criminal counts of stalking. “Based on the information…your subsequent arrest, and the nature of the charges…the Agency has reasonable cause to believe that you may have committed a crime for which a sentence of imprisonment may be imposed.” (p. 4) The agency went on to use words such as “seriousness,” “incompatibility … with official duties,” and his “presence at this facility” being a “threat to its orderly operation.” (p. 4)

Mr. Lockwood challenged the suspension by filing a grievance that ultimately reached an arbitrator. The arbitrator rejected Lockwood’s contentions that the agency had improperly involved the crime provision, and that the agency had failed to specify when the suspension would end. Not so since the suspension refers to the completion of the criminal charges against him, ruled the arbitrator. He went on to find there was a clear “nexus” between the misconduct and the efficiency of the service. In short, Lockwood lost his case before the arbitrator.

He took the matter to the appeals court and has fared no better there. The court has found “unpersuasive” the three arguments raised by Mr. Lockwood in a bid to overturn the suspension.

No word on the outcome of the criminal charges.

One could certainly argue that an agency has a duty to act in a case such as this when coworkers are in fear for their safety. The “crime provision” is there for just this type of a situation, and VA finally got around to invoking it. According to the arbitrator and the appeals court, they made their case for doing so.

Lockwood v VA 2017-1489

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.